The recent landmark Canadian Supreme Court decision granting land rights to the Tsilhqot’in First Nations for a long-contested 1,750-square-kilometer swath of British Columbia could be a conservation coup of historic proportions, with consequences for wilderness battles raging across the country.
“Aboriginal title confers the right to use and control the land and to reap the benefits flowing from it,” wrote Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin.
Countless contested land claims—including areas with proposed mines and oil pipelines—will now be called into question.
Past rulings have established a duty for government and industry to seek “consultation” from First Nations over proposed developments and resource extraction. No longer. The unanimous Supreme Court decision requires the consent of native title holders.
“We’ve pretty much blown the doors off the colonial notion of denying indigenous land rights,” said Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs.
Past court rulings had distinguished between title claims based on permanent habitation by First Nations and land used only seasonally. The Supreme Court ruling does away with that distinction.
“This decision goes so much further than previous decisions and gives rights to the land—not in a token way, where you establish traditional use sites for ceremonial or burial places,” said Peter Wood, a campaign director for the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society British Columbia. “This extends to the total usage of land required to maintain their traditional way of life. Essentially this says first rights of the land goes to First Nations. We’re still contemplating the repercussions, but it seems like a game changer.”
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